Stuart Grey sometimes conducts a silent survey on the subway to assess what percentage of his fellow riders are squinting at phones, tablets, or laptops. But his primary concern is not about antisocial behaviors. As a chiropractor, he worries about what he sees as a growing trend of musculoskeletal deterioration related to screen use.
Younger and younger patients are turning up at Grey’s Brookline chiropractic practice — and he thinks he knows why. Screen use, he contends, is correlated with an increasing number of chronic problems he sees in the cervical and upper thoracic spine.
“And I’m seeing it now at a much younger age,” he said. “This reverse of the normal curvature of the spine used to begin in some people in their fourth or fifth decade. Now I have teens coming in with chronic neck discomfort and stiffness, and those aren’t even the earliest signs of a problem.”
Lauren Mayhew even has a term for this: “text neck,” or “i-hunch” — the “I” referring to devices such as iPhones and iPads.
Mayhew is a board-certified health and wellness coach who teaches a method called Essentrics both at MIT and at Emerson Hospital’s new Steinberg Wellness Center for Mind and Body in Concord. The demographics may be somewhat different but the problems are the same: chronic stiffness or muscle soreness caused by poor sitting habits.
“People think of good posture as just a nice thing that can make you look more elegant,” Mayhew said. “The word posture reminds adults of a parent or teacher telling them to sit up straight.”
But to her, it’s much more than just an aesthetic priority. “If you’re hunched over, you may not be breathing properly,” she explained. “That can have other repercussions to your health. You might be compressing your organs. Bad posture can impact your digestion. There are wide-ranging consequences to not holding your body the way it’s meant to be held.”
A study published in the The Spine Journal last year also raised concerns about text neck. People often look down when they text, holding their necks at around 45 degrees or more, according to a Reuters article about the study.
A person’s head typically weighs around 10 to 12 pounds when in a neutral position facing forward. Flexed forward at 15 degrees, it feels like 27 pounds. At 60 degrees, it feels like 60 pounds, increasing stress on the spine.
Some young patients who shouldn’t yet have back and neck issues are reporting disk hernias and alignment problems, according to the study’s authors, who are surgeons at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
So what’s a screen addict to do?
Mayhew’s Essentrics classes focus on taking a full-body approach that she describes as rebalancing the body by equally stretching and strengthening every muscle.
Renee Saindon, an MIT administrative staff member, started taking Mayhew’s class 18 months ago. Even recognizing the problem doesn’t always solve it, she said.
“As a person who sits in an office all day, I find myself leaning closer and closer to my computer screen when I’m concentrating on something. After reading two hundred emails, I’m practically curled into a ball,” Saindon said. “But then I got to Lauren’s class and become a vertical person again.”
The improvement isn’t just in Saindon’s imagination; at her last physical, she measured half an inch taller than she had a year earlier.
Michael Cook, an Acton-based athletic trainer who works with competitive figure skaters, hears frequent complaints from his clients about pain in their backs or necks. He helps with strengthening exercises, but he also tries to turn their focus to behavioral changes.
“Even when my clients think they are relaxing, sitting in bed watching a movie on their computer screen, they are propped with their heads turned down to look at the screen in a way that is not ergonomically correct,” he said.
And in the case of figure skaters, problems with posture can show up in their scores and rankings. In competition, judges mark skaters on presentation, Cook pointed out. “Any type of limitation they show with regards to stiffness in their spine can cause the judges to think that something is incorrect in their form.”
Kathy Cobb, dance instructor and artistic director at Stage Door Dance Theatre in Marlborough, started teaching dance in 1999, just before the explosion of mobile device use, and she can pinpoint the differences that cellphones have made for her students.
“Today, a higher percentage of dancers have more difficulty keeping their chest and head lifted,” she said, comparing her current students with those she saw 10 or 15 years ago.
“When they are standing around before class, their posture is a little bit more slumped also. I see them setting themselves up for future back problems neck problems.”
But Cobb’s students, who range in age from about 3 to 20, have an advantage over the general population, she said: they have already made physical activity a priority. “I can help them nip it in the bud when I start to see it,” she said.
To be sure, it’s a problem for people of all ages. Novelist Erin McCormack of Bedford, who is in her fifties, acknowledges that she too has a tendency to hunch when working — especially if she’s engrossed in writing a dramatic scene or a bit of fast-paced dialogue.
Bothered by pinched nerves and other pains that she attributed to sitting at her desktop computer, McCormack explored such options as dictation software, but instead found her solution in a more ergonomically designed work station and a regular practice of yoga.
Others believe the solution to problems caused by electronics may be….more electronics. Sheri Clyde, a teacher from Holliston, is tempted by the ads she sees regularly on Facebook for the Upright Go, which bills itself as “a tiny wearable device that improves your posture by vibrating every time you slouch.”
“I’ve always had horrible posture,” Clyde lamented. A physical therapist urged Clyde to put a sticky note on her steering wheel reminding her to practice good posture while driving, but “as a teacher, sitting on little chairs with first graders, leaning over to hear them and to help them, it’s hard to sit up straight! I’d love a device that would remind me.”
“How you hold yourself talks to people,” Colleen LeMay, owner of New Generation Martial Arts in Lexington, likes to remind her karate students of all ages. “One of the first things criminals and bullies do is look for an easy target. Body confidence makes a huge difference in how people perceive you, and posture is a big part of that.”Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.